The myth of brainstorming

Brainstorming is the brain child of Alex Osborne. It comes from his 1948 book called “Your Creative Power” and it was an immediate hit.

It was introduced in Chapter 33: “How to Organize a Squad to Create Ideas.” Brainstorming, he wrote, “means using the brain to storm a creative problem—and doing so in commando fashion, with each stormer attacking the same objective.”

The essential element that distinguishes brainstorming from other group activities is the total absence of criticism and negative feedback. The theory is that if people are scared of saying the wrong thing, they’ll just clam up and not say anything.

In the late 1950s, researchers started poking holes in the practice. Over the decades since, research has verified that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than individuals who work first on their own and then pool their ideas.

Researchers also tested the premise about not criticizing and found that a healthy amount of “authentic dissent” generates far more ideas.

The enduring lesson from brainstorming is, however, that human creativity is increasingly a group process. Some of the elements of the process may change, but as our world grows more populated and more complex, we have to collaborate to find answers to the most difficult problems.

The challenge is to continuously create space for this kind of creativity to take place. It can be as structured as Steve Jobs putting the only bathrooms in the atrium at Pixar or as free-flowing as a well facilitated meeting.

These thoughts derive, as per the previous blog, from the January 30, 2012 New Yorker article on “Groupthink” by Jonah Lehrer.